Saturday, January 23, 2010

Thursday, January 21, 2010


When something terrible happens, the natural human tendency is to blame someone.  That’s the root of the deceptively simple question, “Why?”  The feeling is not so much that if we can discover who is responsible for the tragedy we can punish them and perhaps prevent it from occurring again—although that is certainly part of it—but more the feeling that such knowledge will help us understand something that is so inexplicably sad.  We don’t like the inexplicable; things that we don’t understand need to be explained, answers found, root causes exposed to the light.
The devastating earthquake in Haiti is the type of event that gives rise to a multitude of explanations; the sheer magnitude of the tragedy causes all sorts of people to give all sorts of answers.  Of course, the “Why” question is not going to be satisfied by reference to tectonic plates, fault lines, and potential energy.  The explanations we are hearing aren’t coming from scientists.  They are coming from religious figures like Pat Robertson, who declared that the earthquake was the result of Haiti making a pact with the devil to practice voodoo; from economists who blame economic policies for creating widespread poverty which made the human toll much greater among the poorer classes than among the wealthy; and sociologists, who have said that Haiti’s class system made the devastation much worse than it needed to be.
Nobody is satisfied with the most obvious and perhaps most accurate explanation: that bad things happen that destroy life.  Of course, that is less explanation than observation, but the world is like that.  Some things just can’t be explained.
In 1755 Portugal suffered a horrible earthquake that destroyed Lisbon, started fires that raged across the city, and unleashed tidal waves that created even more destruction.  While theologians and philosophers debated the “why?” of the earthquake, the marquis of Pompal, King Joseph I’s prime minister, said, “What now?  We bury the dead and feed the living.”  And that is what he led the nation to do, and within a year Lisbon was recovering.
The proper response to disaster is action, not theological and philosophical reflection.
There are Christian organizations who responded immediately to provide help and relief to Haiti: The Southern Baptist Convention, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Catholic Relief Services, Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision, Episcopal Relief and Development, the Salvation Army, and many others.  Other religious groups responded as well, including American Jewish World Services, B'nai B'rith International, and Islamic Relief USA.   And of course there are many, many secular and governmental agencies that are hard at work, led by the Red Cross, but also including the United Nations, Beyond Borders, Doctors Without Borders, United Way Worldwide, American Refugee Committee—this list is long, exceeding over 20 organizations that I could find.  And people of all races, religions, and ethnicities are donating to these and other organizations.  They are doing something.
It’s borders on the obscene, however, to classify these responses, as I’ve done, according to religious terms, as if there is such a thing as a Christian response, a Jewish response, a Muslim response, or a secular response.  No, no, no.  There is just a human response.  This is the way it is supposed to be.  Christians, Jews and Muslims spend far too much time fighting each other, arguing who is right and who is wrong, and all three taking on the forces of secularism, atheistic humanism, yada yada yada.  When disaster strikes, all that stuff has to go out the window and we all have to respond, cooperate, and work together.  To do any less is sub-human and subverts whatever truth-claims any of us would espouse.
Sure, one might say, in times of crisis we put that stuff aside and work together temporarily, but in normal times, when there is no crisis….  Well, normal times for whom?  Tell the more than 12 million children in Africa who have been orphaned by war or AIDS that there is no crisis.  For them, crisis is normal.  The human slave trade is a $12 billion annually industry; more than 2 million children are exploited in the commercial sex industry—aren’t these crises?
I am sure that these things sadden God, and that he really doesn’t care who does something about it as long as someone does.  I’m pretty sure that he wants us—all people—to stop debating each other and to work together.  And I’m sure that when we do, it makes him happy.  He might even call it the Kingdom of God.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Reading List

Maybe you haven't noticed yet (or just don't care) but I have added a thing to the left, "What I'm Reading These Days."  I've seen other people do this, and I know some people are interested, so I'll try to keep this updated.

I've seen some lists, however, which are seven or eight books long, none of which are easy, junk-type novels.  They are all biographies, theological treatises, philosophy, etc.

OK, I'll sometimes juggle 2 or even 3 books at a time--something I'm reading at home, something in the office, maybe one in the car in case I find myself eating lunch alone or something.  But 7 or 8?  I mean, I read a lot, but c'mon!  It doesn't say, "What I've read since August," it says "What I'm Reading These Days."  As in, currently.

I get the feeling they're just trying to impress me.  Maybe I'm wrong, but it does cause my B.S. meter to flutter a bit.

So, if you're interested, it's there; if not, you can ignore it.  But it will always be what I am currently reading, and probably won't ever have more than 3 books listed at one time.  I'm just not that good.  And it won't always be stuff like biography or theology.  Sometimes I read for entertainment, like right now I'm reading Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol.  It's a lot like his previous bestseller The DaVinci Code, and it's just a thrill ride.  I also started Ancient-Future Faith by Robert Webber in preparation for a class I'll be teaching in a few weeks called, "The New Evangelicalism."  But I'll go in phases depending on my mood and what's being published.

And just because I'm reading it doesn't mean it's a recommendation.  I read some stuff that I would never recommend, though I try to keep that to a minimum.  But it happens.  So if I say I'm reading it doesn't mean it's good, it just means I'm reading it.  Ask me later if I liked it.

A Thought Upon Reading Two Generals

I recently finished "The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant," which were written at the end of his life while he was dying of throat cancer.  At the end, he wrote, "I feel that we are on the eve of a new era, when there is to be great harmony between the Federal and the Confederate.  I cannot stay to be a living witness of the correctness of this prophecy; but I feel it within me that it is to be so.  The universally kind feeling for me at atime when it was supposed that each day would prove my last, seemed to me the beginning of the answer to 'Let us have peace.'"  (He would die within a week.)

Before that I read Steven Ambrose's biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the great general who led the Allies to victory in Europe.  His greatest accomplishment as president, according to Ambrose, was that he kept the U.S. out of war with the Soviet Union when there were so many opportunities to go to war and so many people advising him to do just that.

At the Battle of Fredericksburg Robert E. Lee said to General James Longstreet, "It is well that war is so terrible -- lest we should grow too fond of it."

I saw an interview with General Colin Powell in which he said that war is horrible, that every other means of resolution must be sought, and should only be a very last resort.

Is it just me or does it seem that those who are most eager to involve us in war are those who have never be in one?

A Rule of Thumb

Take anything Pat Robertson says.

Find the antonym.

And that's pretty much the correct Christian position.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Right Words

I hate being wordless.

     Not that I mind silence. I’m perfectly happy with silence most of the time, and not just when I’m alone. I think that there is a level of relationship in which words are not necessary, when two people can be in each other’s presence and just enjoy each others presence without speaking. But that can’t be always, and it takes time for a relationship to get to that point.
    And when you are thrust into a position with someone you don’t know, silence is pretty darn awkward. In the first few days of my first year in college at Baylor, the university would schedule things called “freshman mixers” which were designed to help people get to know each other and make new friends. Well, I was 1,400 miles from home, in a foreign land (Texas) and I didn’t know anybody except my roommate, whom I had just met, so going to a mixer seemed like a good idea. Free food, a couple of hundred people, half of which were really attractive girls with cute accents—what’s not to like?
At the time I didn’t really know anything about introverts and extroverts, but I quickly learned that there were people for whom talking with complete strangers was not only easy but effortless if not energizing as well.
    And I wasn’t one of those people. So once we got the “What’s your name? Where are you from? What’s your major” information out of the way, I was kind of stuck. I couldn’t think of anything interesting to say, couldn’t think of anything interesting to ask—my mind would go blank.
    Sometimes I would be talking with someone like me, and then the silence would really be awkward. Most of the time it would seem that I would be with some ├╝ber-extravert for whom the words just flowed like a stream. Or a river. A raging river after a record rainfall with rapids formed by ragged rocks. The onslaught of words would stun an ox. Sometimes these people would talk about nothing but themselves, and, quite frankly, they weren’t that interesting, and it always seemed to me that if you can’t say anything interesting, it’s best to say nothing at all.
    But then some of these people would want to do something even worse—instead of wanting to talk about themselves, they would want to talk about…me. And I didn’t have much to say because, like I said, if you can’t say anything interesting, best not to say anything at all. And I found it hard to find much to say about me that I thought would be interesting to anyone else. It’s not so much that I thought that my own life was boring—although, there was that—but that I couldn’t find how anyone else wouldn’t be bored either.
    There are times when a word is wanted or even needed. I like when that word comes, and am frustrated when it won’t, but I have never thought to make up for the right word with a plethora of other words. Quantity over quality has never made sense to me when it comes to words.
    It would therefore seem that God is either a jokester or a sadist for calling me into a role that demands so many words on such a regular basis. What’s interesting is that, in surveys of pastors nationwide, the introverts outnumber the extroverts by a decent margin. Most of these men and women are probably like me, and over the years they have learned the art of conversation with new acquaintances. We’ve learned how find enough words to keep the conversation moving and engaging. We’ve learned how to increase the quantity of words.
    But we’re still much more concerned with finding the right word, so when I say that I hate being wordless, I don’t mean that I am unable to find enough words to fill a twenty-five minute sermon or a 750-word bulletin article. It’s that I hate being unable to find the right word—the one that will make a difference, that will enlarge a person’s perspective, that will lighten a dark moment, bring a smile to someone’s face, help them to understand their life better, the world better, God better.
    Sometimes those words come easily—I’ll be inspired by something and my fingers will fly over the keyboard. And sometimes those words are elusive and I find that there are plenty of things that I can say but nothing that I feel I must say.
    I don’t want to be one of those people who say something because it’s Sunday and it’s time to speak and so they say enough to fill the allotted time slot but it doesn’t amount to the calories in a diet soda. I want to be one of those for whom it’s Sunday and they have something they must say or they’ll just up and die. So if you ever wonder how you can best pray for me, there’s where to start.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

No God Guys

One of the things about being a pastor that I’ve never been comfortable with is that many people expect me to have all the answers about God and/or the Bible.  When they come to me with their questions, they want answers; in many cases, they need answers.  And I want to be able to give them answers.
I understand why they come to me.  I’m their Guy.  I have Guys.  I have a Car Guy.  When I’m having trouble with one of my vehicles, I take it to Randy.  Randy’s my Car Guy.  I have a problem with my car and I expect Randy to be able to fix it.  In fact, it’s never a question of if Randy is going to fix it, it’s just a question of how much it’s going to cost me.  But I never expect to have Randy look at the car, then at me, and say, “Uh, I dunno.”  He’s my Car Guy.  He’s got the answers.
Vance is my Computer Guy.  If I have a problem with my computer, I call him and often he can fix it over the phone.  Occasionally I’ll have to drop it off at his house so he can work on it himself, but I always get it back in a day or two and it’s working better than ever.  Although I would understand if he did, computers being the finicky things they are, I never expect Vance to look at me and say, “Uh, I dunno.”  It’s not happened yet.  (Better never, either. J)
OK, so for many people I’m the God Guy, although I hope they never put it that way.  Or I’m the Bible Guy, which maybe sounds a little better but is still fraught with problems.  Unfortunately there are all too many times when people come to me with their questions and I have to look at them and say, “Uh, I dunno.”  Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten that Ph.D. in Old Testament; someone with a Ph.D. should have, if not all the answers, at least most of the answers.  The problem is that the biggest thing I learned in the Ph.D. program is how little I know.  How few answers I really have.  And how many questions there are.
I’ve actually come to terms with this.  I’m not complaining, I’m explaining.  If the Bible really is the word of God, would you expect anybody, no matter how educated and experienced, to have the answer to all your questions, or even most of your questions?  I’m rather suspicious of religious types who give the impression that they have figured the Bible out, that they are the authority when it comes to biblical matters.  Heck, I’ve read the Bible, and it’s big enough to defy mastery.  My Bible is too big to be mastered.
And God?  Please.  There are no God Guys.  I frankly don’t want a god who can be figured out.  I need a God who is too big, too mysterious, too “other”.  I need a God like Job encountered, who thunders out to all would-be God Guys, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”  And it is a wise person who responds as did Job: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”  (I can just see Job, cowering before this whirlwind God, thinking, “I knew I should’ve just said, ‘Uh, I dunno.’”)
I’m happy to answer the questions that can be answered.  “Where is that verse about presenting your bodies as living sacrifices?”  (Romans 12:1-3)  Or “Does Jesus really expect me to love my enemies?” (Yes.  And pray for them.  And forgive them.)
But I’m OK with shrugging my shoulders and saying, “Uh, I dunno,” because a part of my job—maybe the biggest part—is pointing out the Mystery.  It’s not letting you be satisfied with a God who can be explained.  You need a bigger God than that.  We all do.  We all need the Mystery.
Albert Einstein, though he wasn’t speaking about God—or didn’t think he was--once said, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed."
So also, part of my job is not to give you answers to all your questions, it’s to help you ask better questions.  I’ve always said that if you ask the wrong kind of questions you’ll get the wrong kind of answers, and I believe that is true.  Our questions are too small, and the answers to too-small questions always leave us unsatisfied.  Christians need to ask better questions, and more questions, and learn to be OK with not having the answers.  But maybe that’s something I need to treat further at some later date.
For now, let’s leave it at this: There Are No God Guys (or Gals).  And that’s a good thing.